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In the Narrative Portraiture series, photographer and teacher Chris Orwig explores the use of elements such as location and natural light to create images that tell stories about their subjects and produce a strong emotional connection. In this installment, Chris visits Rodney Smith, a photographer whose work is known for its graceful serenity and its wit. Rodney's career spans more than four decades and includes editorial, fashion, and advertising work, as well as several books.
The course begins with a wide-ranging conversation between Chris and Rodney, during which they discuss Rodney's work, his approach to photography and models, his love of film and of black and white, and the importance of creating photographs that both ask questions and tell stories. Next, Chris tours Rodney Smith's studio, including the darkroom, to get more familiar with Rodney before photographing him.
Chris then takes a series of portraits of Rodney. Along the way, he reviews his gear choices and the compositional decisions he makes, and discusses the importance of committing photographs to paper, particularly in today's digital age. Finally, Chris reviews the images and shares some insights from his conversation with Rodney.
Chris Orwig: Something that's been in the backdrop is that you've had this consistent approach shooting with film throughout these different times you were talking about, and while that conversation of film and digital is a bit muddled right now, there are some aspects that are interesting to me. One is, I have this friend who said, "When I shoot with digital, I look for mistakes; when I shoot with film, I embrace them." And it seems like the way you use film is you're embracing whatever is there in front of you.
Tell us a little bit more about how you understand that whole film digital conversation? Rodney Smith: Well, first of all, it goes back to the very simple aphorism that change is not necessarily an improvement. One of the things that has shocked me, really, is how quickly the culture has embraced something because it's new. I mean, I'm not saying maybe it should be embraced, but it's within a matter of five or six or seven years, people-- everyone now shoots digitally. So is that because it's better or is that because it's easier or is that because that's the if you want to be in the business, that's what you've got to do? I think that comment is absolutely totally right.
I very rarely crop anything. I like to shoot every single thing in camera, and I don't like to know at all what the picture looks like until I get back here and process the film. I like the experience of making pictures more than I like the actual picture. So it's going back to that storytelling thing. I just, I like being with people. I like being with the crew. I like the experience of making the pictures; there's always potential in there.
And I like that more than--when I process the film, I like that, but I like the experience of making it, more. Chris: How about this, picking up on that, the picture in the process you know, when you process the film and get the print, and then the print takes on than a different form, meaning, it could hang on a wall. To me at least, photographs framed on a wall is a one-on-one experience. It could be bound in a book, which is, there is a thread, an arc, you know, what came before, what came after? Tell us a bit about your experience with the image after you get it back, and then where it goes in these different places? Rodney: That's a good question.
Well, the whole reason why I'm a photographer is to create an artifact. If one became just a digital photographer who produces scans and never had the actual artifact, there's no way that I'd ever be a photographer. I'm a real materialist, I would hope in kind of the positive sense of the word, sort of like in the Adams tradition. I absolutely care about the fine print, and that's why I make photographs.
The reproduction is all well and nice, and I'm happy to have them do that, but the ultimate goal is the artifact. That's what I love, and without that, I don't know why one would be a photographer. I mean, I love print quality. I love all that stuff. I like the paper choices, I like silver gel in prints, and I am going to like these pigment prints. I'm always fooling around with all those things, but I do think that what drives everything is the actual artifact itself.
Like, the idea of having this scan, you know, like many photographers, and putting four different images together, compositing four different pictures together, changing the background, changing the face, or whatever, shooting in a studio I am putting a real background in the background. That's not why I am a photographer. That's illustration to me. That's not photography. Now, I'm not saying it's bad. It's just not me; it's not-- it's just not what I'm about.
Chris: A lot of your pictures I would say are big pictures. There's a grandeur to them. There is--you know, a lot of the pictures that we see, or that I see, are the ones that have been edited down, the ones in the books, or in the portfolio. Tell us a little bit about--or maybe the question is, do you make little pictures? And tell us about the small pictures. Rodney: Yeah, I actually I really love little pictures, and I almost like them better than big pictures. You have to understand, when photography first started, it was little pictures. When you shot with film and you printed it in a dark room, you printed it on a paper size 8x10, 11x14, 16x20, and a big print would be a 20x24 print.
And so I have--there are lots of little pictures, maybe three or four inches square, and I really love those pictures. I mean those may be--also going back to one of your earlier questions--some of my favorite pictures. But what's happened has been, since the digital thing, all these printers where we can make prints, mural-sized prints, that's all anybody wants now. They want--everyone wants really big pictures.
I don't if it's a fad or whether they-- I don't know, but the I haven't sold-- even though--they do. The price of the pictures are dependent on their size and also on their edition number. But we haven't sold a small print in a long time; it's always bigger prints.
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